Gamer Koala

My 1989 NES Library – A Casual Retrospective

By the end of 1989, more than 400 games were released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America. I owned 8 of them. Not a collection worth bragging about, but at 12 years old, I was fiercely proud of it.

Because I had a relatively small collection, my memories of buying and playing these games have stuck for the (too many) decades that have since passed. I decided to document these memories and impressions as a very casual Nintendo retrospective, hoping to share some warm, fuzzy nostalgia with other kids like me. I’ve tried to make sure the actual release dates jive with my memories, but please forgive me if I’m off. It’s been… a long time.

The Too-Late Atari Kid

Before the NES was on my radar, I desperately wanted a home video game system. At the time, the Atari 2600 was the one I was most aware of, and on my 9th birthday in 1986, I got exactly what I asked for. Specifically, I got one of the new Atari 2600 Jr. systems. The ones with the rainbow-colored band on them. It was a sleek, futuristic-looking device.

My older sister’s Atari 2600 was a hand-me-down of the “Darth Vader model,” worn out with chewed cables and missing rubber on the joysticks. But most tragically — it was in her room. A forbidden place.

Hooking up the Atari 2600 Jr. to my 13-inch television was magical. My favorite Atari game at the time was Berzerk, and when my sister put down Pac-Man long enough to play with me, our pick was always Combat.

You can imagine my dismay when I almost immediately started seeing ads for a new home video game system: the NES. Priced much higher than the 2600 Jr., it felt out of reach. But I immediately started saving my money and planning for Christmas 1987.

I can’t lie. It was a tough sell to convince my parents that I needed an all-new, much more expensive home video game system so soon after begging for an Atari.

“It was a mistake,” I tried to explain. “I didn’t know about the Nintendo yet. All of my friends are getting one!”

“Well, good, you can play it at their house.”

But I persevered, did extra chores, and managed to save some money instead of blowing it all on G.I. Joe and Star Wars action figures. And finally, on Christmas morning in 1987, a big box was under the tree. The NES system that came with the Zapper and Super Mario Bros. + Duck Hunt.

Super Mario Bros. + Duck Hunt

As soon as I had gotten a taste of the NES at a friend’s house, I struggled to be enthusiastic about my poor Atari 2600 Jr. But now those woes were cured. I had my very own Nintendo! I swapped out the systems within minutes of opening the box. And then I was finally loading up the mind-blowing Super Mario Bros. to play for the first time in my own room. No friends to argue with about taking turns… Just me and Mario. My dream had come true.

While Atari games were blocky, sluggish, and repetitive, the Nintendo felt more like having an actual arcade cabinet in my room. I sat approximately two feet from my small television for hours, working through Mushroom Kingdom. I remember waking up hours before the school bus arrived to play some before sitting in a classroom all day. And when I was sitting at school, I was sneaking peeks at the instruction manual and doodling images of goombas and Marios.

I loved Duck Hunt as well, but I only played it sometimes because, frankly, it’s not a lot of fun to play a shooter game on a tiny television. But Dad let me hook the NES up in the living room on a few weekends and even played a few rounds with me. We bonded over our shared frustration at the laughing, taunting dog.

Eventually, however, I wanted a new game to play, and I narrowed my choices to a couple of titles that were huge hits with my school friends.

Kung Fu

No, Kung Fu was not the game my friends recommended. I had planned to buy a copy of either Spy Hunter or Metroid but ended up leaving with Kung Fu. Toys ‘R Us was out of stock on both games I wanted, and my mom wasn’t keen on watching me hem and haw over the in-stock selection. I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to wait for another coveted Toys ‘R Us trip. I had to make a rushed decision. So Kung Fu it was.

Disappointed is an understatement.

After the magic of Super Mario Bros. and Duck HuntKung Fu almost felt like a trip back to Atari-land. Sure, the graphics were better than my 2600, but the game was so dull and repetitive that I gave up on it within a week. I had months to go before my birthday, which would be my next opportunity to get a new game. I was crushed.

Sorry, Kung Fu. Maybe you deserve a replay one day.

Double Dragon

Whenever I hit the arcade in town, usually at Putt-Putt Golf for a birthday party, Double Dragon is where I dumped most of my quarters. The beat ’em up game was an instant hit for me and my friends, with amazing graphics and responsive controls. The moves were fun to learn, the enemies looked fantastic, and the co-op was next level. Having that game in my own bedroom was a must.

After loading the NES version, my first impression was, “Oh… the Nintendo is definitely not as powerful as an arcade machine.” Seeing the graphics dumbed down was a bummer, but the controls were still tight. It was also the first time I noticed the NES hitting its display limit. I’m sure most Nintendo players experienced the flashing sprite issue when too many characters were on screen at once.

Despite that, Double Dragon was the first co-op game I owned for NES that let you play simultaneously. No more arguing over whose turn it was. No more secretly wishing for my friend to fall into a hole and die so it would be my turn again. We had to work together and save each other’s skin sometimes… and it was a fantastic experience to play that way without worrying about the inevitable empty pockets that every kid dreads at the arcade.

It was finally Christmas again, and I was back at Toys ‘R Us. My mom stood in line with me as I held the voucher card to give the “cage person” for a copy of the actual game to take to checkout.

“Mom, look, the cartridge is GOLD!”

“It ought to be, at that price.”

But Mom’s snark did not deter me. I can’t remember why I picked Zelda II over the original game… I assume my kid-logic came to an “it’s newer, so it must be better!” conclusion.

Since I had no friends who played Zelda, I didn’t know what I was missing (and wouldn’t for years). But to be honest, I absolutely adored Zelda II. It became the first RPG game that I played to completion. And, boy, it was hard! Fighting Shadow Link was the most epic boss battle I had ever faced, and finishing the game felt like such a great accomplishment.

Zelda II is vastly underrated, in my opinion, and I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks so. Matthew Kaplowitz recently wrote an excellent retrospective to celebrate its 35th anniversary. It’s worth a read if you want a deeper dive into the troubled glory that is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Super Mario Bros. 2

My love of controversial sequels did not end with Zelda II. The next game I bought was Super Mario Bros. 2… truly the weirdest LSD trip version of a Mario game that has ever existed.

While I missed the co-op playability of Double Dragon, I loved that I could play as characters other than just Mario and a green clone of Mario. Each character had their own strengths and weaknesses, and I tested them all to their limits.

Mario was the Average Joe character. Toad was terrific at pulling up veggies but was a lousy jumper. Luigi could jump so incredibly high he was hard to control, especially with his restless leg syndrome. Peach though… That’s where it was at. Her ability to float for so long almost felt like a cheat code. There were a few levels I subbed in Toad or Mario, but I always finished the game playing Peach the most, by far.

Super Mario Bros. 2 was weird and wacky, and it was my absolute favorite Mario game until 3 came out. I later discovered that the Japanese version wasn’t even a Mario game, which made a lot of sense even while blowing my mind at the same time. I was so glad when they re-introduced characters like Shy Guy into the future Marios. It was always canon Mario to me!


One of my most distinct gaming memories as a kid was the sleepover I had with my next-door neighbor, where we started playing Rampage at around 8 pm and didn’t stop until we beat the game… Just shy of the sun coming up the following day.

We powered through all 128 levels of Rampage, which was another arcade favorite of mine. Like Double Dragon, I had to adapt to the weaker fidelity and flashing sprites. But it was still fun to smash buildings, eat soldiers, crush vehicles, and go a few rounds punching each other for fun.

I was a Lizzy guy, and my friend stuck with George. We had never beaten the game at the arcade because we were kids with very shallow pockets. Recently, I read that there were more than 700 levels in the arcade version. What?! But we were determined to finish every level on the NES and experience the glorious ending to our quest to destroy every major city in America.

“Congratulations!” it said. And that was it. A single screen after many, many hours of effort. I won’t say the ending spoiled Rampage for me because the true pleasure came from all the smashing, but it was a lesson nonetheless. Sometimes, you can put massive amounts of work into something and still leave disappointed.

Despite the lazy ending, I’m glad I beat Rampage with my neighbor. I hope he remembers that sleepover as fondly as I do.

Ninja Gaiden

Sure, I beat Rampage. But it’s more of a test of patience than skill. Ninja Gaiden, however? Different story. Easily one of the most challenging games I had ever played and absolutely the hardest game I ever “finished,”… if I can even make that claim considering how it happened.

Growing up, my friend down the street was one of the most genuinely nice kids I had ever met. His family had moved from Russia, and English was not his first language. But he was as much of a game geek as I was… and it didn’t matter what game it was. During sleepovers and on weekends, we would play board and video games equally enthusiastically. We played so much damn Monopoly that I can’t even look at the box anymore.

On the video game side of things, Contra was our jam. It was his cartridge, and we played it to death. But then I got a copy of Ninja Gaiden, and our focus shifted entirely. The game wasn’t co-op or even take-turns multiplayer. Still, it was so tough that we took turns and played until we died, Super Mario Bros. style.

Our favorite thing about Ninja Gaiden was the cut scenes. They were the closest thing to cinematic I had ever seen on a video game console. The graphics were beautiful, the animations were simple and effective, and the music and sound effects were next level! The difficulty, though… whew. That game required dedication and skill on an entirely new level.

It took us a long time to run Ryu Hyabusa through the full game. Trying to reach The Demon for the last boss fight required near-perfect button mashing and maneuvering. We struggled for weeks, getting closer and closer to the end. And when the day finally came, after passing the controller back and forth for what felt like ages… my friend beat the game.

While I never managed to defeat the final boss in Ninja Gaiden myself, simply getting to that last battle felt like a monumental accomplishment. Maybe in this day and age, with Souls-like games all over the landscape, finishing Ninja Gaiden is a quaint achievement. But for me, it’s the one that got away. And at this age, I’m afraid my slower reaction time prevents it from ever happening.


Do any other ’80s kids out there remember collecting Kool-Aid points and spending them on the Kool-Aid catalog? My stepmom was a serious Kool-Aid point collector, and we drank a lot of Kool-Aid. I mean, a LOT. It was a different time, though. Putting that much sugar into your child wasn’t as frowned on as it is today.

So after my sister, neighborhood friends, and I drank countless gallons of Kool-Aid, I had enough points to spend on a video game. It’s pretty wild when you think about it… I don’t think any other product since Kool-Aid had such a sweet deal for kids. Pun intended.

Anyway, the game selection wasn’t the most robust. So I chose DuckTales and waited impatiently for it to arrive for several weeks. I hadn’t focused on buying games based on cartoons or movies before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had played the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at a friend’s house and hated it.

But DuckTales was a surprisingly good game! It was also reasonably tricky in places. It didn’t feel lazy or silly. The graphics were good, the music was on point, and the platformer approach was responsive and fun. I don’t think I ever finished the game, but I remember enjoying it enough to pick up the reissue from a few years ago. It’s pretty timeless, in my opinion, and would be an instant classic for any hardcore DuckTales fans out there.

I recently learned that DuckTales was built on the same tech Capcom used to build Mega Man. This revelation made the game’s fantastic quality make a lot more sense…

The Blockbuster Age

DuckTales wasn’t the last NES game I bought because, eventually, I grew my collection to include many of the classics I had missed as a kid. But by this time, my family had started making regular trips to Blockbuster Video for movie nights. I was given the option to rent a movie or a game on those occasions, and I almost always chose a game for the weekend.

This is how I filled in the many gaps I had missed out on. Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Metroid, Castlevania, Dragon Warrior… the list goes on and on. Most of these additional games I rented or traded friends for once I grew tired of a game I owned (for some reason, no one wanted to trade for Kung Fu… I still have it to this day).

As the ’90s rolled around, I began to drift away from my NES. In 1991, I was introduced to a few things that changed my life forever: Dungeons & Dragons, DOS gaming (specifically the Ultima series), and a new band called Nirvana. For 13/14-year-old me, these things put me on a new path. I did end up getting a Super Nintendo system and fell in love with many of the 16-bit RPGs, but it wasn’t until the PlayStation 1 that a home video game console truly recaptured the magic for me.

But those, as they say, are stories for another time.